OMAHA, Neb. -- Midway through the first half, the crowd got behind the underdog again. Pendarvis Williams drove the lane, pulled up and nailed a 10-foot leaner, and the roar came. Actually, it was more like polite applause. The basket snapped a 25-0 run by Florida, which never gave 15th-seeded Norfolk State -- or the fans waiting to help out -- a chance to make more history.
"Whenever you have that Cinderella story, everyone wants to see those guys make it all the way," Florida forward Patric Young said. "Even if they don't know 'em, they're gonna cheer for 'em. ... We didn't want that to happen, so we stepped on the gas right away."
Instead, after an 84-50 win that felt more like a November tuneup than March madness, the story line is Billy Donovan's Gators back in the Sweet 16 for the second straight season -- and the sixth time in his 16 seasons as coach; seventh-seeded Florida will face No. 3 seed Marquette on Thursday in a West region semifinal in Phoenix. And the story is about a team that struggled down the stretch, losing four of its last five games, but seems to have regained its footing.
"I think we have a lot more things we're capable of doing," freshman guard Bradley Beal, one of five Gators in double figures. "We just haven't shown it yet."
They might be on their way. The Gators' late-season skid coincided with the season-ending broken foot suffered by sophomore forward Will Yeguete. The loss isn't easily quantifiable (Yeguete averaged 4.4 points and 6.3 rebounds), but it took a while to reconfigure -- chemistry, rotations, energy, everything -- and they might be jelling at the right time. Though it's hard to gauge from the matchups against Virginia and Norfolk State what Florida's ceiling might be, the results were impressive; the Gators won by 26 and 34 points.
More important than the margin, perhaps, were the opponents' totals. Tenth-seeded Virginia scored 45 points. Norfolk State managed 50 (and just 19 in the first half, when Florida opened up a 28-point lead).
"We feel really confident in how we played on the defensive end," Young said.
Florida sent double-teams at Norfolk State center Kyle O'Quinn, who had buried Mizzou with 26 points and 14 rebounds; he finished with four points on 1-of-9 shooting. O'Quinn's night started with a missed three-pointer just 20 seconds in, and it didn't get better from closer range. "I wish I had the answer, I'd go back and fix it," O'Quinn said. "The ball didn't go into the hoop. There's not too much to be said about that."
Donovan, concerned with the Spartans' size advantage on the perimeter, asked his guards to defend their counterparts full-court, in order to keep them from getting open perimeter shots. "Defending the three-point line was as important as anything," Donovan said. "O'Quinn got a lot of publicity and he had a tremendous game against Missouri, but I thought the thing that went unnoticed in that game was the three-point line. That was huge for them."
After hitting 10-of-19 against Missouri, the Spartans were 4-of-24 -- 2-of-12 in each half. They hit just 27.3 percent overall (after connecting on 54.2 percent Friday). And while the Gators credited their defense, the decisive 25-0 run was fueled by five three-pointers in less than five minutes. That wasn't a surprise; Florida led the nation with 9.9 three-pointers per game.
"It was tough all around for us," O'Quinn said, and maybe we should have seen it coming. Before Friday, when Norfolk State beat No. 2 seed Missouri and Lehigh upset Duke, it had been 11 years since a No. 15 seed won in the NCAA tournament. None had ever won twice. But the Spartans believed they had a shot, and why not? In beating Mizzou to become tournament darlings, they had probably played as well as they could -- hot shooting, good defense and, as the game went along, swagger. They were backed against the Tigers by a typical NCAA tournament crowd, which cranked up the volume when it sensed the underdogs might pull out the upset.
Florida never let the Spartans -- or their new fans -- get started. Rodney McCauley's three-point play gave Norfolk State a 6-4 lead with 16:47 left. The next basket, Williams' 10-footer, came more than seven minutes later and cut Florida's lead to a mere 21 points. "They kind of shut down from there," Beal said. The halftime lead was 47-19.
"It killed a lot of people's spirits," Norfolk State guard Brandon Wheeless said. "Seeing yourself down 28 at half, it's hard.
In a quiet locker room afterward, Norfolk State president Tony Atwater addressed the Spartans. "You had a great run," he said. "Though today was not your best day, it was nothing to not be proud about." That he was correct probably didn't ease the hurt. Meanwhile, a few steps down the hall, Young was matter-of-fact in defining the Gators' goals. Returning to the Sweet 16?
"Not far enough," Young said. "I think we need to go at least two more to the Final Four. Actually, I want to go three more. No, I want to go four more. You can't go five."